Cinematic sea change

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A scene from “Cabrini”

I can’t be the only Italian American who watches movies well after they’ve ended to search for Italian surnames in the credits. Do you do it, too?

As the film’s countless contributors scroll by, I feel a twinge of pride every time a paesan appears among them. Often there are quite a few, holding positions ranging from best boy, stunt double and key grip to writer, producer and director.

With so many Italian Americans helping to put the sparkle in Tinseltown, one has to wonder: Why does Hollywood continue to treat us so shabbily?

Our enormous positive impact on the industry alone, and society at large, would argue in favor of more balanced portrayals. And yet, Italian-American characters rarely wander from the corral of gangsters and buffoons in which the entertainment industry has us penned.

The decades-long barrage of major movies and TV shows dedicated to denigrating us has gratefully begun to subside, but negative portrayals continue to lurk on the fringes of many of the industry’s current offerings, and positive portrayals are still few and far between.

It may simply be a matter of bad habits dying hard, but one thing is certain: It’s high time to start rewriting that shopworn script.

It took a non-Italian American to turn the tide in a major way with the recent release of “Cabrini.” Thanks to J. Eustace Wolfington, the story of one of our nation’s true superheroes, St. Frances Cabrini, debuted in theaters across the country in early March.

The film is SO Italian in its content and spirit, and its portrayals of our community are SO sympathetic and positive, it can’t help but reshape the way moviegoers view us, at least a little. More importantly, it may just inspire Hollywood creatives to try to replicate the film’s success by tapping into the vast reservoir of good at our community’s heart.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 18: Anthony Russo, Jon Favreau, Louis D’Esposito, Angela Russo-Otstot, Donald Mustard, and Joe Russo attend AGBO Russo Brothers’ Italian American Filmmaker Forum: 2024 Renaissance Celebration Honoring Louis D’Esposito on January 18, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for AGBO)

But one mainstream hit does not a sea change make. For that, we can now look to a remarkable award ceremony that took place on Jan. 18.

On that fateful day, key Italian-American players in Hollywood and our community gathered to honor entertainment industry giant Louis D’Esposito. The award was presented at the studio of fellow show-business heavyweights Joe and Anthony Russo to raise money for the Russo Brothers Italian American Filmmaker Forum.

For more about the event, click here.

The forum is a game changer in its own right, bestowing grants each year upon budding directors whose projects shed a positive light on the Italian-American experience.

“We want to sensitize and influence an entire generation of young filmmakers to portray us in a truthful and positive way,” says Basil Russo, father of the Russo brothers, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, and the catalyst for both the forum and the award. “These films will help the American public rightfully associate our community with all the good we’ve done in this country and all the positive contributions we’ve made.”

The Jan. 18 ceremony took the forum’s mission to the next logical level by aiming the message at the heart of Hollywood itself.

“To affect real change, we have to get the entertainment industry to think differently about our community and how it portrays us,” Basil Russo explains. “What better place to start than with the Italian Americans in the industry?”

Bringing Hollywood’s Italian-American decision-makers together with their counterparts in the community builds important bridges that increase the likelihood that the message will be heard, according to Russo.

“It’s important to bring leaders in both arenas together to create a truly united community,” he notes. “That way, we can work more effectively to celebrate and promote our wonderful heritage because we will all be speaking with one voice.”

A soon-to-be launched film festival showcasing forum winners will amplify that voice within Hollywood and among the American moviegoing public.

Our community has been stuck in a low ebb of negative portrayals for so long. How exhilarating is it to feel the tide finally turning?

The above appears in the April 2024 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.


About Paul Basile

Paul Basile has been the editor of Fra Noi for a quarter of a century. Over that period, he and his dedicated family of staff members and correspondents have transformed a quaint little community newspaper into a gorgeous glossy magazine that is read and admired across the nation. They also maintain a cluster of national and local websites and are helping other major metropolitan areas launch their own versions of Fra Noi.

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